The Wolfman (Universal Pictures) is all atmosphere, literally. The entire movie is shrouded in a gloomy pea-soup fog through which black-clad Victorian characters occasionally peep. Director Joe Johnston, working from the template of the 1941 original starring Lon Chaney, uses his $100 million budget to lovingly re-create the cheapo matinee-horror effects once achieved by dry ice, fake fur, and spirit gum. The set dressers must have had a wonderful time scattering ancient tomes over every surface and calculating the right cobweb ratio for each candelabra. But this Wolfman feels cosseted by luxury and (in the grand Oedipal tradition of the legend) intimidated by the looming shadows of its ancestors. Johnston understands everything about old-fashioned werewolf movies except why they were scary.
Anthony Hopkins is Sir John Talbot, the proprietor of Blackmoor, a vast ruin of a castle outside London. (The forbidding 17th-century estate, played by the real-life Chatsworth House, is easily the movie's most resonant character.) As the film begins, Sir Talbot's son, Ben, has just died under mysterious circumstances—a walk in the woods, followed by abrupt evisceration—so his older son, the saturnine Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) returns from his life as a stage actor in America. But the lordly and remote Sir John seems curiously uninterested in exploring the meaning of a strange medallion found on Ben's body after his death. Meanwhile, Ben's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) is also hanging around Blackmoor, mourning her beloved and looking limpidly out at the moors in her velvet dressing-gown.
At a gypsy encampment where Lawrence is investigating the provenance of the medallion, an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) warns him to stop meddling. But it's too late: An unseen attacker rages through the camp, leaving piles of gypsy-guts in its wake. Lawrence sustains a wound to the neck, Gwen ministers to him tenderly as it heals, and the next time the moon is full, Benicio Del Toro becomes Benicio … Del Terror!
Or not. The truth is, The Wolfman packs a lot of gore for very little scare. Every werewolf-attack scene ends in heaps of severed limbs and unidentified soft tissue, but the scenes themselves rely on the most basic of shock tactics: a loud noise, a dim shape popping out of nowhere. We can all agree that being mauled by a half-human, half-wolf beast would be an undesirable fate, but despite the thickly laid-on atmospherics, no sense of menace or mystery attends the central character. He's either a moping nobleman or a CGI-enhanced predator, and the transition between the two states, while impressively rendered, is as psychologically uninteresting as the flipping of a toggle switch.
If Lawrence's transformation into lupine form had taken place more slowly, in stages, we might have been treated to some Cronenberg-style "body horror."(Remember those terrifying scenes in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum begins to fall apart, fingernail by fingernail?). But the wolfman's confrontation with the beast within is neither spooky enough to be horror nor goofy enough to be camp (SPOILER ALERT!)—at least until the amusingly lurid final battle between Werewolf Benicio and Werewolf Anthony Hopkins (a chubby, almost lovable creature who resembles Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's Abominable Snowman.)
The Wolfman does offer its viewers the occasional pleasure: There's The Matrix's Hugo Weaving as a mutton-chopped investigator from Scotland Yard; Emily Blunt's unmatched ability to carry off period garb (she literally gallops by on a white horse wearing a floor-length cape); and the way Anthony Hopkins pronounces "ly-can-thro-py" as if it had 12 syllables. But beware the movie's final frames, which suggest that the gash in Hugo Weaving's neck may soon have its own unbidden consequences. Werewolves can be put down with a silver bullet, but potential cash-cow franchises are harder to kill.
Slate V: The critics on The Wolfman and other new releases